Claudia Smith

We lived in the suburbs, with relatives, and there, we felt clean and invisible. We lived in cities, in motels and the homes of friends’ friends. It was hardest there, because our mother never knew what to do in cities. Sometimes we walked and walked with her until we were lost, until we could feel the pavement through our Payless shoes.

Then we moved to Texas, where she was raised. At first, she was happy. Then, we went to towns with names like Harmony, Hope, and Bountiful, where we lived for a time, and then moved on. People always helped us. In the town called Harmony, we went to a church called Victorious Life. There were picnics with lemonade made from lemons, baked bread, and pickles that were not from the store. Children played tambourines and stomped their feet. We thought they were our friends, but our father said it was just an experiment. Every place we stayed, he talked about the people as if they were the children and not us.

This time, I said I wasn’t budging. Our father was loading up the truck. I lay on the floor and stared up at the ceiling. It was stucco, with little bits of glitter. Our mother’s face floated over mine, a pale, dull moon. I thought she might be sad.

“Come on,” my brother said, marching up and down like he had to pee. “We can’t leave her, Dad! Get up, get up!” He still believed they would do things like leave us behind forever.

“I’m sick,” I said. As soon as I said it I knew it was true.

“She’s manipulating,” our father called from outside. In the bathroom were the treats he’d left for Mr. Rinaldo, the landlord who’d hung up on him. Dog poop he’d collected from the neighbors’ yards.

My mother leaned over me again. She looked sick, too. Her lips were dry and her hair hung flat on either side of her empty face.

“Your face is fat,” I said.

“Get outside,” she told me.

“OK,” I said. “Let me say goodbye.”

I walked through the house, thinking about what people did in the movies when they left their homes. There was a water stain on the wallpaper over the cinderblock bookcases. I traced it with the tip of a finger. I tried to remember if maybe my brother had spilled something there. But I couldn’t. It was probably already there. I took a deep breath, thinking, I should remember this smell. I hadn’t thought of it, but the little house smelled like freezer burn. Kind of like old ice that’s gotten funky. In the windowsill were the beans we’d planted and forgotten to tend. Outside the window, all the garbage we didn’t have time to take to the dump.

When we pulled out of the town limits, I whispered into my brother’s ear. “Remember Carmen’s shoe store, when Mom bought you those shoes that squeaked.” We passed by the Sunny’s, the Woolworth’s, the empty buildings.

“No whispers,” our mother hissed. She could whisper in a way that you could hear crystal clear, like sound over water.

“All these towns are the same,” our father said. “They look like movie sets. Old western movies sets, the kind from when I was a boy. You kids wouldn’t know. What’s behind the buildings? Nothing. A whole lotta nothing. “

We were all silent. We weren’t allowed to talk when he was leaving.

“You know what it’s worth?” he said. “Nothing. It ain’t worth a pitcher of warm spit.” He said that in a put-on accent, thicker than his own. Then he rolled down his window and started to whoop.

I stopped listening. In my own head, I heard the hectic music rising, an ocean inside me. It was the sound of Victorious Life, in tingles and shots of abundant joy. It felt like a life inside of me.

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